Read excerpts from, "How Big Are The Pancakes?"
California, Here We Come!
Down in the Valley
“Are we there yet?” Mary Anne asked as we rode along Old Highway 99.
“Wishful thinking,” I replied. “Maybe in 3,500 miles.”
A blue morning sky, overflowing with marshmallow clouds, greeted us as we left Cindy’s hometown of Williams, California. It was Sunday, June 4, 2000 and the start of our cross-country adventure.
Excited and full of expectation, we pedaled three abreast down a dusty two-lane road through the vast Sacramento Valley. It was hard to believe we were finally on our way. Our fully loaded touring bikes, packed with all our gear, would propel us, sustain us, and be our home on wheels for the next two months.
Of our three mighty steeds, Cindy’s Trek 520 was the oldest of the bunch. Ole’ Blue Boy came into her life in 1989, and after thousands of miles and several overhauls, was ready to journey across America. Millie, my new, candy-apple-red Cannondale T 700 was on its maiden voyage, along with Mary Anne’s newly acquired blue Trek 540.
It was my first attempt at cycling self-contained. Riding a bike loaded with all of my equipment was a new experience, and I immediately had trouble steering. The bike’s added weight caused me to bob and weave down the road. It took all of my concentration to keep upright. I knew the trek was going to be a challenge, but so soon? Well, maybe if I hadn’t been so lazy and had practiced at home first, I wouldn’t be in this predicament.
I cycled faster and gained speed to stabilize myself. Finally, at 12 mph, Millie and I soared straight down the road with a new sense of balance. With practice, I was confident I would master the fine art of riding a “fat” bike. After all, I would have over three thousand miles to get it right.
As we rode through the flat valley, Cindy filled us in on the area’s agriculture. Farmland layered in rich, loamy soil stretched out for miles, and welcomed us with corn, sugar-beets, and wheat. We cycled by waterlogged fields, where young green rice shoots poked their heads toward the sun. I was captivated by endless acres of tranquil water. The valley, fed by the Sacramento River, was a haven for rice farming.
Seven miles into our ride, we breezed through the small town of Maxwell. Twenty miles to the east, I spotted a mountain range that rose mysteriously from the valley floor.
“Cindy, what’s that strange formation in the distance?” I asked.
“It’s the Sutter Buttes,” she answered.
The eight-mile diameter volcanic fortress looked like it had simply dropped out of the sky onto the ground. Its twenty jagged, vertical peaks rose a startling 2,100 feet from the surrounding plain. It was an amazing sight and captured my attention for several miles.
An inviting tailwind kicked in and pushed us by almond, walnut, and olive orchards. Temperatures hovered in the eighties. It was a gorgeous day to be cycling. The traffic was light and made for a quiet, peaceful ride. The only sounds to be heard were the rhythmic pounding of tires on the pavement and an occasional growl from our stomachs. I knew it was lunch time and was delighted when we pulled into Willows, California.
We parked our bikes and moseyed over to Java Jim’s, where we downed tasty sandwiches and ice cream. The small eatery, famous for its homemade fudge, was the first of many small cafes and diners we would frequent along the way. These hometown establishments greeted us all across America with great food and warm, friendly people.
We jumped back on Old Highway 99 and headed for our destination, Orland, sixteen miles away. The sprawling valley, lined with levees, canals, and irrigation systems, seemed to roll on forever. Sixty miles in the distance, I saw the white peaks of Mts. Lassen and Shasta. The snow-covered volcanoes were a reminder of the climbing that awaited us in the Cascades. I had one more day of flat riding to get ready.
At 5 p.m., we rolled into Orland. “Wow, we’re finally here!” I exclaimed. “Now, how do we get to Jan’s house?”
“We turn left on 16th street,” said Cindy.
Jan, Cindy’s friend, lived on a small ranch outside of town. She was away visiting family, but had said that we could stay there for the night.
After riding on back roads and crossing a canal, we arrived at Jan’s. We were greeted by bleating sheep as we pulled into the driveway. Before us stood a quaint, one-story wooden house with an inviting looking front porch. The first thing we did was jump off our bikes and head for the porch.
“Oh no, there’s only one chair, but there is a tree stump someone can sit on,” I yelled. Cindy claimed the chair, Mary Anne the stump, and I sat in the grass. As we relaxed there and planned our evening, we enjoyed the beauty of the surrounding almond trees. We caught several resident sheep spying on us from behind an orchard fence, and before we knew it, the whole wooly gang was present. I let out a “BAA” and reassured the flock they wouldn’t be on our menu that night.
Before preparing dinner, we pitched our tents in the back yard. As they popped up one by one, our camp came to life. I had the largest dive: a mossy-green Eureka tent, called “Dome Sweet Dome.” The two-person tent comfortably held all of my gear, and me. We could have slept inside the house, but decided to camp out in order to test our equipment. If we needed to replace or repair an item, we were near civilization and had access to stores. Once on the road, that would not always be the case.
After a hot shower, I joined Cindy in the kitchen.
“Hey, what’s for dinner?” I asked.
“You see that garden out there? Start digging. You’ll find potatoes, carrots, onions and corn,” said Cindy.
Now wait one minute; that wasn’t in the plan of the day! I’d been known to beg for food, but not forage for it.
“Cindy, do I look like the hunting and gathering type?”
“You sure do and a mighty hungry one,” she replied. That wasn’t the answer I was expecting, but because I was famished, I proceeded to dig in the garden with my hands. Soon Mary Anne joined in the potato and carrot digging frenzy. After we finished our excavation, the tubers were washed, peeled, and boiled on the stove. They tasted great with the pasta dish Cindy threw together. We had survived our first meal on the road without any wooly sacrifices.
I rolled over in my sleeping bag and heard cows mooing. Soon the resident sheep joined in with their bleating, and before I knew it, we were being serenaded by a pastoral choir. It was 6 a.m. and I didn’t need an alarm clock because Bossy and her friends were up early.
I unzipped my dome and stepped out. Cindy was busy taking down her tent, but Mary Anne was still asleep. She was in dire need of a wake-up call, so I shook her tent and yelled, “Time to get up sleepy head.”
I heard a groan and then she replied, “Hey where’s my breakfast?”
“What do I look like, a short order cook?” I asked. “You can either root around in the garden or wait until we find a café in town.” For a moment, all was quiet; then I heard Mary Anne chuckle.
We arrived in Orland for breakfast and each downed a stack of pancakes followed by a coffee chaser. It was Monday, June 5, and we had a sixty-five mile ride to Redding, California. When I began my ride on Old Highway 99, my body was sore and my pedals didn’t want to move. I was still getting used to riding self-contained and hauling sixty pounds of gear on my bike.
I had fourteen pounds of equipment packed in each front pannier (saddlebag) and ten pounds in each rear one. On my back bike rack, I stowed my tent, sleeping bag, Thermarest air mattress, and spare tire; which added another ten pounds to the total weight. The two front panniers held the heavier items: my camping equipment, flashlight, towels, maps, journal, tape recorder, toiletries, camera, bike tools, and rain gear. The two rear panniers carried my cycling and street clothes.
The road steered us by several green rice fields as we headed thirty miles north to Red Bluff, California. Half a mile down the road, I saw Cindy parked near some orange construction cones.
“It looks like the bridge is out,” she yelled. “We’ll have to backtrack a distance and then jump onto Rawson Road. We can ride north on that. It parallels Interstate 5.” So, the three of us turned around and rode back toward Orland. Once on Rawson Road, we picked up speed and continued on our journey.
We pedaled on back roads in order to be away from snarling traffic, and it allowed us to relax and enjoy the area’s beauty. It also gave us a chance to gab. It had been three years since our Mississippi River trek and we had a lot of catching up to do. Even though we led very different lives, we all loved to travel and were bound by our passion—cycling.
Cindy, single and forty-six, taught fifth grade in her hometown of Williams, California. Throughout her twenty years of teaching, she lived for her cycling vacations and had the most bicycle touring experience. In 1992, during a year’s leave of absence, she rode her bike twelve thousand miles around the perimeter of the United States. She rode self-contained and spent over eight glorious months on the road. In 1999, she completed her goal of cycling in all fifty states.
Mary Anne, a single, forty-two year old speech pathologist from Richmond, Virginia, enjoyed riding around the beaches and mountains of her home state. She also had the opportunity to ride self-contained down the east coast of the United States.
At forty-seven, a Navy wife and stay-at-home mom from Gulf Breeze, Florida, I was a relative touring novice. I had pedaled the Santa Fe Trail, the Natchez Trace, and throughout New England, but with the support of a SAG (Support and Gear) wagon. Someone else carried my gear, made sure I got to my destination and found me a comfortable place to rest my head. So, hauling everything around on my bike would be a challenge.
When we arrived in the town of Red Bluff, we stopped for lunch. The all-encompassing Sacramento River snaked its way through town and provided a natural back drop for us to enjoy. We were 341 feet above sea level and had hardly noticed our gradual climb through the valley.
North of Red Bluff, our route took us off quiet back roads and onto noisy I-5. On our trek, we planned to ride on tranquil roads through small towns, but knew this wouldn’t always be possible, so we were prepared to burn rubber on the Interstate. On the four-lane roads, we had plenty of room to ride on the shoulder, but we had to be careful when we approached the flow of traffic by entrance and exit ramps.
An hour later, just south of Anderson, we exited I-5 and turned onto Highway 273. We were once again on a lazy two-lane road; the kind a turtle could safely cross. We crawled the next twelve miles until we arrived in the big city of Redding, California.
“Well, we’re finally here,” I said excitedly. “Where are we staying tonight?”
“There’s a KOA on the east side of town. Let’s check there,” Cindy replied. We meandered through the city looking for the campground. Most KOA Kampgrounds, part of a national chain, were found near Interstate exits so we knew we had to head toward I-5.
When we arrived at our campsite, Mary Anne and I set up our tents, while Cindy showered. On the road, to make life easier, we each took a job. Cindy had a stove and all the kitchen accessories, so she volunteered to cook. Mary Anne signed up for laundry duty, and I was elected dishwasher and chief financial officer. Along with keeping track of our pooled funds, the “kitty,” I had to make sure Mary Anne didn’t “launder” any of the money. The “kitty” was set up to pay for food, lodging, and laundry.
After dining on pasta and fruit, we retired to our tents. I had enough time to write in my journal before sundown. When my head hit the pillow, I was lulled to sleep by the hypnotic sounds of traffic whizzing by on I-5.